The Circle: Providing a safe space for free-flowing dialogue

Talking might not solve a problem but it is the first step towards taking action and bringing in change, a belief strongly held by Pooja, co-founder of The Circle.

by Aisiri Amin

We live in a world which constantly trivializes and dismisses mental health issues. While some dig deep into understanding the different spectrums of the human mind, some choose to stay aloof. In India, even acknowledging that there one is struggling with a mental health issue is a taboo which is often stared down and silenced. With The Circle, Pooja and her fellow co-founders, have taken a step towards normalizing the conversations about mental health.

The idea spawned while in college when Pooja met like-minded people who felt an urgency in changing the way society approached mental health. She, along with her friends, started The Circle in 2015 in a small room. People got together, shared their stories. Some were about depression, some about trauma and abuse. Pooja herself opened up about her everyday struggle for the first time. For them, it was the much-needed beginning towards the long road to healing.

Today, The Circle has expanded. It hosts events, gets people to join in for discussions and talk. With this step towards the right direction,  these young millennials are hoping to change the script of mental health in India.

Pooja talks to INKLINE about The Circle, talking about mental health in India, and much more. Read on!

founders circle
Pooja, Aarthi Kuber and Nadiya Sehgal run The Circle together in Mumbai, India © Pooja Krishnakumar

INKLINE: How did The Circle come about? What was the idea behind it? 

Pooja: The Circle came about in late 2014 when three of my classmates and I decided to sit down and talk about the growing apathy people were facing towards instances of violence in the society. While we were talking about it, we discovered that all of us had, in some way been through some sort of violence- sexual, emotional, mental etc.  That was the first time I spoke about my own experience with sexual assault and it felt great to have people listening to me empathetically and we were all practically strangers.

That is where the idea of holding safe sessions came up for our college and we started inviting juniors and seniors and professors to just sit down and talk. In the beginning, we started with sessions trying to understand literature and trying to create discourse on topics like molestation, rape, child sexual abuse, the law and violence, sex, sexuality and gender, patriarchy, toxic masculinity and more.

Eventually, we understood the deep correlation between mental health and the disturbances many of us face mentally that is because of these violent acts we have faced in our lives. We then pushed our reach and session ideas to create discourse and understanding of common mental health ‘buzz’ words like Depression, Anxiety, Panic, OCD, and more. Today, The Circle also does a lot of wellness sessions like goal orientation, vision boarding, yoga, art days, movie screenings and is currently doing more sessions at schools, corporates, and other organizations.

© The Circle

I:  Do you think today there is an urgent need for people to have a conversation about mental health, abuse and destructive stereotypes? If so, how are you addressing that through The Circle?

P: People often question how talking helps if that’s not translating into action. Our idea is quite simple, we are trying to create a mental shift of being. A lot of us don’t think of mental health discrepancies as they should be understood and that shows in the way we respond to people who come to us for help or for a shoulder to understand them.

We believe that even though everyone in this world may not have some trouble with their mental health, they still have a mental health to take care of and maintain- which many of us do not.

Moreover, if a person is able to empathetically understand where a person who has such troubles stands, they can actively change their behavioural patterns towards people who require assistance.

I:  In a country like India, where people still put depression in the same box as sadness and make sexual abuse a family secret, how do you, as a millennial, bring about change?

P: People fear what they do not understand, and often people tend to tell us depression is a new development in today’s age. That isn’t true. Mental health is only getting its due attention now, and you only see it more because more people are talking about it and there is more visibility.

We can only make the smaller changes that change the lives of the people in our smaller and larger circles. All of us working on this very small project are happy even if one person is feeling better after coming to one of our sessions. Change does not have always have to make a noise ( although it can be, and often should be)- it can also be quiet.

Circle session
The Circle provides a safe place for people to share their stories about mental health issues, talk about trauma from sexual assault or anything and everything. © The Circle

I:  Tell us about the workings of The Circle.

P: At this point, we have different types of sessions. We have independent sessions, we have collaborations, and we have sessions in schools, colleges, and sometimes in organisations as well.

In a month, we do a minimum of 2 independent sessions, which have gone to a maximum of 7 sessions. These sessions happen in Mumbai and Bangalore. I head the Bangalore operations and plan our all the sessions here while my director and co-founder Aarti and Nadiya handle all the Mumbai operations. We are strongly backed by a support team consisting of Chandni Parekh, Neha Jayaram, Namrata Vaidya, Chaitra Neerubhavi among others.

The main focus of all the events is having a strong research backed module to get people interested in the topic at hand. Our events are very activity based and our main idea is to make sure they take back at least one idea out of the two or three that we share with them per session. Most locations we have gotten in touch with for our sessions are super helpful and always make sure they provide us with anything and everything we need logistically for the sessions we plan out.

The Circle hosts an array of events such as Art Day which was held last month. © The Circle

I:  Do you feel the discussions about topics such as mental health and harassment as well as finding support within communities has been made by social media which has become an overwhelming part of our lives?

 P: It is imperative for these conversations to be a part of our lives and a part of our individual journey. It only helps us understand, empathize and tolerate one another- thus making this challenging existence easier for each other.

Social media has very clearly impacted the way we reach out to our audience and has helped with reaching the people who need what we do the most. Social media can stir conversation, reach people and get us connected to people who can help us with our visions in the best way possible.

I: What has been the most uplifting part of the journey?

 P: I always say that The Circle has helped me more than I have ever done anything for it. The people I have met during the sessions, the people I have networked with, the bonds I have created, the people who email me after the sessions and every single person I get to share this journey with leaves me with so much gratitude to have begun this journey in the first place. It’s been beautiful.

Through The Circle, these young millennials are hoping to change the script of mental health in India © The Circle

I:  What has been the most challenging part?

P:  I would say the most challenging part is to have 4 things on number one on your priority list. I’m doing my Masters course right now, and while that takes a lot of my time, I also push myself to do as much for The Circle as well as The Queer Question, my other organisation. Beyond that, I find it difficult to take care of myself, but I have to. We all do. Often so, the challenging parts are battling my own mind and getting some rest.

I:  What are your plans for the near future? 

P: The Circle has a long way to go. We definitely want to do more in terms of reach and research. So more modules, incorporating more themes, a larger support team- it’s all got to happen!

I:  If you could give one piece of advice to millennials across the world, what would it be?

P: Often you face a big question in your mind- ‘What can I do to help?’. The answer is very simple. Do what you can. Talk to yourself and help that one friend out of the thoughts they are feeling, share a few extra smiles. You will have done your bit.

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